Album marketing has become a bit of a mess recently. Artists are resorting to dropping projects out of the blue to drum up excitement; bands like Death Grips have made whole careers out of toying with their fanbase, staging break-ups and placing penises on covers for the sake of a headline. Over the past few weeks, huge albums from Beyoncé, James Blake, Drake and aforementioned Death Grips have all used elaborate marketing stunts to generate some cheap buzz. Keeping up is exhausting, even if the resulting albums turn out to be wonderful.
We have Radiohead to thank for this. Their late career output has been propelled by stupidly clever marketing, from their “pay what you like” system for ‘In Rainbows’, through to the scavenger hunt they have sent fans on with this, their ninth studio album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. While this might be exciting for die hard fans and media types, the band’s promotional schemes feel pointless. Radiohead are one of the few long-running bands that are guaranteed to have the masses foaming at the mouth with each release. Their success doesn’t lie in gimmicks or even catchy singles, but in a sustained perfectionism that leaves their projects feeling immaculate in presentation, raw in emotion and cinematic in scope.
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is their most mulled-over collection of songs to date. Many cuts here have found new life after being performed live over the years. ‘Burn the Witch’ has been teased for a decade, while the closer, ‘True Love Waits’, dates back to the nineties, played alongside the grungier material on The Bends. The melodic power of these songs remain intact, but every moment here is reworked, built upon and chiselled to precision.
Sonically, the album is backed by delicate pianos, warm basslines, crisp acoustic guitar, hissing percussion and John Greenwood’s gorgeously terrifying string arrangements. These are sounds we’ve heard from the band before, but rarely has it come together so elegantly. It’s a fusion that feels indebted to sixties psych-folk and electronic pioneers like Four Tet.
‘Burn the Witch’ is a mastery of tension, the tactile plucked strings ascending over a crunchy bass-synth and sequenced hi-hats. Thom Yorke’s worn falsetto goes from desolate to eerie and soaring at the chorus, the sacrificial subject matter twisted further by the ominous orchestration. ‘Daydreamer’ shimmers with celestial ambient noise, the glassy piano-backing rising through melancholy passages, carrying Yorke’s haunting lyricism (“Dreamers, they never learn”, he sighs. It’s a crushing moment on an album comprised of them).
The album’s depressive mood is uniform without ever wallowing. In fact, many of the songs here are vibrant and expressive in their exploration of misery. ‘Ful Stop’, one of the few upbeat songs here, is nerve-racking rather than head bobbing. A gritty bass loop comes in and out of focus, the groove blossoming patiently as the track develops. The frenzied second half reminds of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggei’ with its tense propulsion and resonant textures. The mix becomes thick with sound, webs of guitar and percussion layering while remaining crisp and distinct. The songs here unfurl and grow monstrous without you even realising, until they’re towering in their emotional scale. The band’s patient approach to structure and sound design heightens of every crescendo and musical shift.
The album’s half point, ‘Glassy Eyes’, is one of the most delicate pieces the band have constructed, with a floating piano line that threatens to shatter into a thousand shards as it’s overwhelmed by the strings in the second half. It’s a centrepiece that allows for a moment of stillness, the painful lyrics soaking up all of the beautiful intricacies of the first half of the record and letting the power of them out through meditation.
Lyrically, the band speak of impending doom with as much force as ever – environmental decay, isolation and the threat of love gone cold all come together to create bleak, multifaceted songs. Yorke’s lyrics are cryptic, but feelings of anxiety, political mistrust and disconnection are everywhere. “I’m not living, I’m just killing time” he sings on ‘True Love Waits’ the album’s intimate climax. Fans have attributed its pain to his recent divorce, but given that the song was written decades ago, an autobiographical reading feels surface level. That such rich emotions can be pulled from cryptic lyrics speaks to Yorke’s power as a writer. Personal, political and primal thoughts bleed out of the same lines, gaining deeper meanings with a shift in perspective.
The same song manages to bleed just as many emotions out of a minimal piano backing, layers of crumbling keys hinting at new textures every listen. Hollow twinkles, muted rumbles and wooden knocks are squeezed out of the same instrument. This masterful balancing of sound owes a lot to the band’s long-time producer, Neil Gordrich; the record seems to have been a personal journey for him too, having lost his father during the recording process. “A piece of my soul lives there”, he said on twitter. Fans are finding new parts of it with every listen.
Radiohead’s best songs reach their peak long after they’ve first been heard, revealing themselves when they’ve latched onto your own experiences. It’s the reason why an early review can feel detached or incomplete when posted hours after the songs have been sat with. The true successes of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ will be known in retrospect, but what’s immediately apparent is that it’s just as worth diving into as the band’s most celebrated material.
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is out now via XL Recordings.
This Radiohead review was written by Stephen Butchard, a gigsoup Contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.